Are America’s Catholic Bishops Embracing Christian Nationalism?

By Bill Berkowitz | 2 October 2023
Daily Kos

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

In the Introduction to her new book, Playing God: American Catholic Bishops And The Far Right (Melville House, 2023), veteran reporter Mary Jo McConahay, writes: “The euphoria with which American Catholic bishops greeted the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade reflects how much the prelates claim the victory as their own. This was victory fifty years in the making.”

“The Catholic bishops of the United States are united in our commitment to life and will continue to work as one body in Christ to make abortion unthinkable,” said Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A poll last year from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that Archbishop Broglio out of step with America’s Catholics. The poll found that 63 percent of Catholic adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 68 percent opposed the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Who are America’s Catholic bishops and what role do they play in the church and in the culture?

According to McConahay, “there are 73 million [Catholic] believers in the U.S.; more than a fifth of the population. And they vote (75% in 2016). There are 274 active members – all beyond middle age men and mostly white — of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), one of the most prominent lobbying groups in the country.”

McConahay writes of the extent of Catholic presence in the U.S., where  “U.S. bishops oversee one of the biggest national Catholic infrastructures in the world. They run the largest network of private elementary and secondary schools in the country … saving taxpayers who pay for public schools some $20 billion a year. … Catholics run 233 colleges and universities, one out of eight in the world. They are prominent in U.S. health care, with one study showing that Catholic-owned or affiliated hospitals have grown 22 percent since 2001, many due to mergers, so that today one in six acute-care beds is in a hospital connected to the Church, generally beholden to strict USCCB health care directives.”

The alliance between conservative Catholics is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon; it has been brewing for quite some time. There were the mid-twentieth century anti-Semitic demagogues Father Charles Coughlin and Father Arthur Terminiello. In the late 20th century, Paul Weyrich, often dubbed the Father of the New Religious Right, was the master at uniting “the political trajectory of Catholic bishops with that of leaders of evangelical Christians,” McConahay writes.

In November 2009, conservative Catholics and evangelicals joined together to put together The Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Conscience, described by The New York Times’  Laurie Goodstein as “an effort to rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush.”

McConahay notes that over the past fifty years, conservative bishops have been aligned “with far-right Catholic laypeople, like-minded evangelical Christians, and ultraright politicians, to implant a nationalist Christian dispensation in the law and culture in the United States, believing that their own moral point of view ought to reign for everybody, throughout the land.”

The bishops’ “moral point of view” has been undermined, as indisputable evidence has shown that Catholic Church officials have been involved in a multi-year massive cover-up of thousands of sexual abuse incidents by Catholic clergy.

“On every issue having to do with sexuality or reproductive health, there’s a huge gap between the way lay Catholics think and what the hierarchy is teaching,” said Catholics for Choice Jamie Martin.

While the bishops do not always advocate conservative policies, many have embraced and become leaders in the country’s culture wars. Several refused to get vaccinated and were on the front lines spewing disinformation about COVID-19, claiming the government’s rules for religious gatherings were an attack on religion. Several have advocated denying the Eucharist to President Joe Biden, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other pro-choice Democrats.  Many have been critical of reform initiatives advanced by Pope Francis, and have been against him since his election in 2013.

The notion, as McConahay put it, that “U.S. bishops want to insert their vision of Catholicism into aspects of law and society that go beyond religion,” is in lock step with conservative evangelical Christian demagogues advancing what is called Seven Mountains Dominionism.

Seven Mountains advocates are Christian nationalists pushing Christian control over what they call the seven key mountains of American society; family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government.

“There is no question that the Catholic bishops supported many Trump administration policies, especially on abortion and gender issues,” Religion News Service’s Thomas Reese recently reported. “They wanted Catholic institutions to be free to reject birth control provisions in their employees’ health insurance coverage. They wanted to be able to fire staffers who did not support their teachings on gay marriage and other bioethical issues. They celebrated when Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices helped overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion in the United States.”

But Reese added, “On the other hand the bishops publicly affirmed the 2020 election results and condemned the Jan. 6 riot.” Reese noted that “During his time in office, the bishops also were loud in their criticism of Trump’s immigration policy. They complained when federal programs for the poor were cut.”

Reese noted that while “The bishops should be congratulated for not drinking the Trump Kool-Aid. … is silence enough? Without being sucked into partisan politics, they need to affirm that Christian nationalism is a heresy, that lying in politics is a sin against the common good and politicians are subject to the same laws as any other citizen.”

However, affirming that Christian nationalism “is a heresy,” might be a bridge too far for many in the Catholic bishops’ hierarchy.

McConahay is not particular hopeful that the trend toward Christian nationalism amongst Catholic bishops will be reversed: “It may be that prophetic voices of certain Catholic prelates will rise above those of the most conservative bishops who now call the tune for the American Catholic Church. Whether that happens in time ro reverse the tide of Christian nationalism to which rightist bishops contribute is a matter unresolved.”

Freethought Matters – Mary Jo McConahay

Playing God: American Catholic Bishops and the Far Right with Mary Jo McConahay

American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel (Christian Nationalism Documentary) | Real Stories

Trump ‘threw open the doors’ of Christian nationalism, says investigative reporter

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